Orange County

Former UNC trustee criticized for ‘blackface’ comment

UNC Board member Don Curtis.
UNC Board member Don Curtis. 2012 News & Observer file photo

A Facebook interaction involving a former UNC Board of Trustees member drew attention after a Durham lawyer shared it on Twitter on Wednesday.

After a high school classmate reached out to former trustee Donald Curtis in late July, his reply referenced memories of the woman appearing in “blackface” in a play. The term relates to the historically offensive theatrical use of makeup by non-black actors to represent black people.

Responses to the tweet by T. Greg Doucette, who unsuccessfully ran for N.C. Senate District 22 last year, mostly were of general astonishment.

Reached Thursday, Curtis said his comment referred to a one-act play in which his friend, Polly Hamrick, played an African American maid character and wore makeup as part of her costume. The two attended high school in the 1950s in Bessemer City, a small community in Gaston County.

“The makeup was just makeup,” Curtis said.

“I mean it wasn’t white lips and all that stuff. I probably shouldn’t have used the word ‘blackface.’ It wasn’t Al Jolson. It wasn’t minstrel stuff,” he said, referring to the 1930s white actor who sometimes performed in blackface makeup.

Curtis said he was the director of the drama, and he couldn’t recall the name of it.

“It had absolutely nothing to do with race,” he said.

Curtis owns Curtis Media Group, a broadcast company that includes 57 radio stations across North Carolina. He served two four-year terms on the UNC trustee board, and his term wrapped up last month. He is an alumnus of UNC.

Hamrick, a retired guidance counselor in Winston-Salem, called the social media criticism of her former classmate “another nothing burger.”

“I’ve known Don Curtis for a long time,” Hamrick said “He’s a fair-minded man and he’ s not a racist.”

“This pertains to something done in high school back in the ’50s,” Hamrick added. “Good grief.”

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559, @janestancill